When determining whether someone with a death sentence has a mental disability, Texas has long used outdated standards partially created by elected judges. Now that those standards have been ruled unconstitutional, one district attorney wants the state to use a markedly different measuring stick: current medical science.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg sent a brief to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Wednesday afternoon in the case of Bobby Moore, a man convicted in the 1980 shooting death of a Houston supermarket clerk. Ogg now says Moore is intellectually disabled, but the questions surrounding the prisoner’s mental capacity led to a March Supreme Court ruling that invalidated Texas’ method of determining intellectual disability for death row inmates.Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the court’s opinion that the state’s test created an “unacceptable risk” of executing intellectually disabled people, a practice deemed unconstitutional.
But while the ruling tossed out Texas’ old way of determining disability, it didn’t create a new one. Instead, cases of death-sentenced inmates who were deemed competent for execution under the old test were suddenly ripe for new litigation, and at least two men who had been on death row for decades had their sentences changed to life in prison — all while awaiting a final ruling on Moore’s intellectual capacity.
Ogg asked for Moore’s sentence to be reduced to life in prison, and her brief also asked Texas to create a new way of determining intellectual disability — one that sticks to the medical books.
“‘Unacceptable risk’ necessitates that the States should strictly adhere to the definitions of intellectual disability as contained within the most current versions of the clinical manuals,” said the brief.
She implored Texas to conform to the standards set by the American Psychiatric Association, similar to how Louisiana and Mississippi determine intellectual disability. If the Texas court accepts Ogg’s suggestion, death penalty experts say it will put Texas in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling and will put fewer Texas death penalty cases in front of the high court in the future.
“You don’t have the same systemic problems in states that are using medical definitions,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national organization critical of current death penalty practices. “We see persistent problems in states [that] have adopted standards that are clearly inconsistent with the contemporary medical standards or have created procedures that make it virtually impossible to prove intellectual disability.”
Dunham said in general that states have sought to conform to previous Supreme Court rulings, but others — Texas, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas and Florida — have created hurdles for proving the disability. He said the best way for Texas to avoid future problems is to use existing medical standards.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state in federal death penalty appeals, and several district attorneys in counties where intellectual disability cases are in play did not return phone calls Thursday.
In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, but it left it up to the states to determine how to qualify the condition. The legal definition of intellectual disability doesn’t have to fully match a medical definition, but it does have to be informed by the current medical frameworks, according to the court.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals created its own method two years later. Death penalty critic Judge Elsa Alcala wrote in a 2015 opinion that the test was only meant to be a temporary solution “in the absence of any legislative guidance.” The method found inmates facing execution intellectually disabled if their IQ was 70 or below. If an IQ was above 70 but close enough to be within a margin of error (the state put Moore at 74), the court would look at how well the person functioned in daily life by referencing 1992 medical guidelines and a controversial set of questions called the “Briseno factors.”
The factors included questioning if a neighbor or family member would consider the person disabled, the person’s ability to lie and the planning involved in the murder. In its March ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said the Briseno factors strayed too far from medical-based frameworks.
“The [Court of Criminal Appeals] overemphasized Moore’s perceived adaptive strengths — living on the streets, mowing lawns, and playing pool for money — when the medical community focuses the adaptive-functioning inquiry on adaptive deficits,” Ginsburg wrote.
Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with the incorrect usage of the Briseno factors but wrote in a dissenting opinion that the court’s majority tossed the Texas court’s ruling without considering societal standards.
“The Court instead crafts a constitutional holding based solely on what it deems to be medical consensus about intellectual disability,” Roberts wrote. “But clinicians, not judges, should determine clinical standards; and judges, not clinicians, should determine the content of the Eighth Amendment.”
It’s unknown when the Texas court will make a decision in Moore’s sentence or a new way to determine intellectual disability. In the meantime, the death penalty’s intersection with intellectual disability is up in the air.
BRYAN, Texas – A man was sentenced to death Wednesday for a rampage that left six people dead at a remote East Texas campsite.
A Brazos County jury deliberated about 45 minutes before deciding William Hudson, 35, of Tennessee Colony, should face execution. The same jury found him guilty last week on three counts of capital murder in the 2015 shooting and beating deaths of 77-year-old Carl Johnson, 40-year-old Hannah Johnson, 45-year-old Thomas Kamp, 23-year-old Nathan Kamp, 21-year-old Austin Kamp and 6-year-old Kade Johnson.
The verdict on a punishment comes exactly two years after Hudson’s arrest, which was on Nov. 15, 2015.
Evidence showed the victims were part of a blended family that gathered for a weekend together to camp on property in Tennessee Colony, about 90 miles (144 kilometers) southeast of Dallas. They had recently bought the land from Hudson’s family. Prosecutors said Hudson resented the sale.
Cynthia Johnson, the wife of Carl Johnson, was able to hide and survived the rampage.
The Eagle of Bryan-College Station reported that Cynthia Johnson testified that she heard Hudson fatally beat her husband and her daughter, Hannah, inside a recreational vehicle. She hid until dawn the next morning, retrieved a cellphone dropped by her daughter and called police.
Four victims were found in a pond.
Defense witnesses testified that Hudson suffered brain damage from multiple seizures, two car accidents and extreme alcohol abuse, and had been emotionally and sometimes physically abused by his father.
“William Hudson was created, he wasn’t born that way,” Stephen Evans, one of Hudson’s attorneys, said.
Prosecution experts said Hudson had a personality disorder and not a mental illness.
“This is just who he is,” special prosecutor Lisa Tanner said. “This is a man who is not gonna change. That ought to scare you.”
The case had been moved from Anderson County to Bryan, about 90 miles (144 kilometers) to the southwest to avoid potential jury bias.
HOUSTON — The man charged with killing a sheriff’s deputy at a suburban gas station Friday emptied his 15-round handgun into the back and the back of the head of the deputy, as witnesses watched in horror and surveillance cameras captured the shooting, prosecutors said Monday.
The man, Shannon Jaruay Miles, 30, walked into a courtroom crowded with sheriff’s deputies and police officers for his first court appearance here Monday morning. Mr. Miles said nothing as the Harris County district attorney, Devon Anderson, described to a judge what the authorities have called an unprovoked attack. The deputy, Darren H. Goforth, 47, had pulled into a Chevron gas station about 8:30 p.m. Friday when Mr. Miles approached him from behind and opened fire, the authorities said.
After the hearing, Ms. Anderson said Mr. Miles was cooperating with investigators but said they were still trying to establish a motive, even though prosecutors do not have to prove one under Texas law. Law enforcement officials have said it appeared Deputy Goforth was targeted because he was wearing a uniform.
After a weekend of denouncing a “dangerous national rhetoric” aimed at the police, officials have been hesitant to comment further and to explain how it might have influenced Mr. Miles. The Harris County sheriff, Ron Hickman, said Saturday, referring to the “Black Lives Matter” slogan, “Well, cops’ lives matter, too.”
Asked Monday whether anti-police sentiment had anything to do with the case, Ms. Anderson replied: “I have no idea whether it does or not. But you know what — I want to accentuate the positive here.” She spoke of a Saturday vigil and a Sunday prayer walk that drew over 1,000 people to the gas station each day.
“This crime is not going to divide us,” Ms. Anderson said. “This crime is going to unite us. People of all races were out there. That’s what’s important here.”
Mr. Miles, who graduated in 2003 from a high school near the gas station, Cypress Falls, and played on the football team there, did not have to enter a plea at the probable-cause hearing. His arraignment was set for Oct. 5.
Anthony Osso, one of Mr. Miles’s court-appointed lawyers, said: “I just ask people to keep an open mind. It’s really easy to pass judgment and rush to judgment on it.”
In 2012, Mr. Miles was arrested in Austin on allegations of assaulting and seriously injuring a man at the Salvation Army shelter where he had been staying, the authorities said. He was accused of punching and kicking the man in a dispute over which television program to watch, and he was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, officials said.
Mr. Miles was sent to a state mental hospital after an evaluation found him mentally incompetent to stand trial, said Joe Frederick, the Travis County assistant district attorney in the case. After a six-month stay, Mr. Miles was found competent to face prosecution, but the case was dismissed in 2013 when officials were unable to find the victim.
Ms. Anderson said investigators had found 15 .40-caliber Aguila shell casings near Deputy Goforth’s body. A witness said he had pulled up to the gas station with his children, and he heard gunshots, Ms. Anderson said. The witness saw a black man with a bald head standing over the deputy and shooting, and he saw the man flee in a red Ford truck with an extended cab.
The gas station’s surveillance camera video showed the truck had a trailer hitch on the back and a white cooler in the bed. A search for the vehicle led investigators to Mr. Miles’s home.
In Mr. Miles’s garage, investigators found a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol, Aguila cartridges and a white cooler, Ms. Anderson said. Tests on the pistol showed it matched the gun that fired the shell casings left at the scene, she said.
The scheduled execution date for Joe Franco Garza has been withdrawn.
Garza was scheduled for execution on September 2. He was found guilty of the 1998 murder of Silbiano Rangel and sentenced to death.
There is an agreed order that said his execution would be stayed while more DNA testing is completed.
The Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney’s Office and Garza’s attorneys both agreed to this, according to court records.
The agreed order states that a number of pieces of evidence, including clothing, fingernails, and hair among others, be tested.
“It’s not an admission by the DA’s office that he’s entitled to relief,” David Guinn, a Lubbock criminal defense attorney, said. “It’s a good thing for the court to do. As a matter of fact, it takes a smart judge with a lot of courage to stop an execution date, but in light of recent scientific revelations and material, why not be safe? Why not make sure?”
Guinn added, “If he’s a bad guy he’s not going anywhere, and if we get it wrong, well, thank goodness for justice.”
“Several pieces of physical evidence are going to be evaluated by the lab. Both parties agreed to that as set forth in the order, and that the results of that testing will come back to Mr. Garza’s attorneys, and the State of Texas,” Guinn said. “And when they get that back, they’ll look at it and decide what to do next.”
Junto al nicaragüense Bernardo Tercero, cuya ejecución está programada para el miércoles de esta semana, hay otros 21 extranjeros en el corredor de la muerte en Texas, en su mayoría mexicanos y centroamericanos, aunque también los hay de Sudamérica, Asia y el Caribe.
Si nada lo impide, al nicaragüense lo ejecutarán el miércoles a las seis de la tarde locales en la cárcel de Huntsville, la más antigua de Texas y en la que ya han sido ajusticiados 13 extranjeros desde marzo de 1993, cuando el dominicano Carlos Santana murió a manos de sus verdugos.
Tercero fue condenado por asesinar a otro hombre en 1997 durante un atraco en una lavandería de Houston, crimen por el que ha pasado los últimos 15 años de su vida en el temido corredor de la muerte de Texas, ubicado en la cárcel de Polunsky.
Once mexicanos y tres salvadoreños, entre otros
Además de Tercero, en Texas están condenados a muerte 11 mexicanos, tres salvadoreños, dos hondureños, un argentino, un dominicano, un vietnamita, un bangladesí y una única mujer nacida en la isla caribeña de San Cristóbal y con pasaporte británico.
La mayoría está en la cárcel por un asesinato, aunque hay casos como el del mexicano Abel Ochoa que en 2002 mató a su esposa, a sus dos hijas de 7 años y de 9 meses, a su suegro y a su cuñada, o el del salvadoreño Héctor Medina, que mató a su hijo de tres años y a su hija de ocho meses en 2007.
Otros, como el mexicano Juan Carlos Álvarez está condenado por el asesinato de cuatro miembros de una banda rival en 1998 o el también mexicano Ignacio Gómez que mató en 1996 a tres personas tras una pelea.
Por su parte, el hondureño Edgardo Cubas y el salvadoreño Walter Sorto fueron condenados por el secuestro, violación y asesinato en 2002 de tres mujeres hispanas, una de ellas de 15 años, aunque hay sospechas de que pudieron estar involucrados en más casos parecidos.
Cubas estuvo a punto de ser ejecutado en 2014, pero finalmente suspendieron su cita con los verdugos.
Otros, como el salvadoreño Gilmar Guevara, que en el 2000 mató a dos personas durante un atraco, ya han agotado todos sus recursos legales y podrían recibir una fecha de ejecución en los próximos meses.
Entre los casos más conocidos está el de la mujer británica, Linda Carty, condenada por el secuestro y asesinato de su vecina, Joana Rodríguez.
Según los fiscales, Carty estaba tan desesperada por tener un bebé y salvar su matrimonio que decidió raptar al recién nacido de Rodríguez, cuyo cadáver fue hallado un día después de su desaparición en el maletero de un vehículo.
Carty fue condenada con el testimonio de los autores materiales del crimen, pero ella siempre ha defendido que le tendieron una trampa y su caso ha atraído la atención de los medios de comunicación del Reino Unido.
No lejos de la controversia
La ejecución de ciudadanos extranjeros en los últimos años ha estado rodeada de polémica, ya que en 2004 la Corte Internacional de Justicia (CIJ) de La Haya ordenó en el llamado “Fallo Avena” revisar el caso de 51 mexicanos condenados a muerte en Estados Unidos a quienes se les violó el derecho a notificación consular.
La Convención de Viena sobre Relaciones Consulares obliga a los Estados a informar a los consulados respectivos de la detención de ciudadanos extranjeros, así como al detenido de que tiene derecho a solicitar asistencia consular.
Desde la sentencia, Estados Unidos ha seguido ejecutando a ciudadanos extranjeros, cuatro de ellos “en franca violación” del “Fallo Avena”, según sostiene la Cancillería mexicana.
El director del Observatorio Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), Robert Dunham, dijo a Efe que “Estados Unidos ha violado las leyes internacionales en muchas ocasiones al ejecutar a ciudadanos extranjeros”.
Por su parte, el abogado de Tercero, Mike Charlton, afirmó que “Texas nunca ha respetado los derechos consulares”, por lo que no espera que la violación del derecho a esa notificación tenga ningún efecto en el caso del nicaragüense.
Según datos del DPIC, en Estados Unidos hay 139 extranjeros de 36 nacionalidades condenados a muerte, casi la mitad (61) están en California, mientras que en Texas hay 22 y en Florida 21.
Desde que el Tribunal Supremo de Estados Unidos reinstauró la pena de muerte en 1976, 31 extranjeros han sido ejecutados en todo el país.
Sin embargo, durante casi siete meses de 2015, Texas no ha impuesto la pena de muerte. En algunos casos, los jurados optaron por poner a los convictos tras las rejas de por vida.
Es parte de una tendencia, que indica que la pena de muerte podría estar siendo relegada. Los números muestran, según el exveterano fiscal de distrito Tim Cole, que la aplicación de la pena de muerte ha dejado de ser una herramienta a considerar invariablemente para los fiscales.
“Estamos demostrando como un estado que podemos vivir sin la pena de muerte”, señaló Cole.
Nearly six years before before Navarro County prosecutor John Jackson used a jailhouse snitch to help send Cameron Todd Willingham to his death, Jackson made similar use of an inmate informant in a different death penalty trial.
In both cases, the informants later said their testimony resulted from secret deals they made with the prosecutor, which were withheld from defense lawyers.
Jackson had strong evidence in the December 1986 trial of Ernest Baldree for murdering a husband and wife as he stole cash and jewelry. But Jackson also bolstered his case with testimony from Kyle Barnett, a convicted drug user and burglar, who told the jury that Baldree confessed to the crime while they were both inmates in the Navarro County Jail. Baldree was executed in 1997.
On September 10, 1991, 11 months before Willingham went on trial, Barnett signed a sworn affidavit for lawyers working on Baldree’s appeal. Barnett said that Jackson, along with Navarro County District Attorney Patrick Batchelor, pressured him to testify against Baldree in exchange for favorable treatment in his own case.
The scenario that Barnett described echoes allegations later made in the far more famous case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three young daughters.
Last March, the Texas State Bar filed a formal accusation of misconduct against Jackson, accusing him of obstruction of justice, making false statements and concealing evidence favorable to Willingham. The bar action accused Jackson of failing to disclose to Willingham’s defense a deal with Johnny Webb, a jailhouse informant who testified that Willingham confessed to the crime while they were both in the Navarro County Jail.
Webb now says his testimony was false—that Willingham never confessed—and that Jackson threatened him with a lengthy jail term if he did not help the prosecution, so the two made a secret deal.
Jackson has denied making any deal with Webb, and says he helped Webb because he was facing death threats because of his testimony.
A now-retired Texas prosecutor struck secret deals to secure key testimony in more than one death penalty case, according to a new report.
After uncovering evidence last summer that Navarro County prosecutor John Jackson arranged such a deal in one death penalty case, The Marshall Project, a news nonprofit focused on criminal justice issues, reported Tuesday that Jackson did the same in another, earlier case. In both instances, the report says, defense attorneys were not told about the deals and those testifying reported feeling pressured into doing so and guided in what to share.
The new story alleges that Jackson bolstered a 1986 case against Ernest Baldree—who was charged with murdering a husband and wife during a robbery—with testimony from Kyle Barnett, who was an inmate with Baldree.
But Barnett says he never wanted to testify against Baldree: “The prosecutors there had me in a position where it would be real hard on me if I refused,” he said, according to the report. Barnett said Baldree admitted to the murders, but was also remorseful, saying he was high on speed and didn’t know what he was doing—a fact, he says, prosecutors were uninterested in hearing.
“The scenario that Barnett described strongly echoes allegations later made in the far more famous case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three young daughters,” Maurice Possley and Maurice Chammah write.
Jackson had, for more than 20 years, denied making a deal in that case, too, but a story by Possley republished by The Washington Post last summer cast doubt on his denial.
The former inmate who provided testimony against Willingham in that case, Johnny E. Webb, told Possley that he had been coerced and his testimony that Willingham confessed was a lie. Jackson at the time called the allegation a “complete fabrication.”
Jackson has also alleged that he and Barnett have never had contact. But Barnett says Jackson and his prosecution team told him that they needed his testimony.
“They told me that, if I would testify, they would allow me to the Cenikor Drug Rehabilitation program in Fort Worth for violating my probation,” Barnett explained in an affidavit, according to the new report. “They said if I didn’t testify, I’d be going back to the prison for a long time.”
Cathy Lynn Henderson, who dominated national headlines in 1994 for the the killing of 3-month-old Brandon Baugh, died Sunday after a month of hospitalization, her lawyer said Monday. She was 58.
Once just two days away from execution, the former babysitter spent nearly two decades in prison before winning a new trial in 2012. On June 12, just months before her case was to go to trial a second time, Henderson hobbled into the courtroom on crutches with the help of her lawyers and pleaded guilty to murder. She was sentenced then to 25 years in prison, but with credit for time served, she could have been released in four years.
Henderson was taken to the hospital on June 25 after she had trouble with her breathing. She was diagnosed with pneumonia and had a stroke during her stay.
Cathy Lynn Henderson passed away last night, at peace and without pain,” her lawyer, Jon Evans, told the American-Statesman. “In the last few weeks of her life she was relieved of a 21-year burden. Her version of the events of the tragedy of Brandon Baugh finally was given the proper respect and credence it deserved. She passed with that satisfaction.”
A sharply divided Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Henderson’s capital murder conviction and sentence in December 2012. The court upheld a recommendation by District Judge Jon Wisser that she have a new trial based on new scientific discoveries into the nature of head injuries.
Henderson claimed that Baugh died after slipping from her arms and falling about 4 feet to the concrete floor in her home in the Pflugerville area. She said she panicked, burying the boy’s body in a Bell County field before fleeing to Missouri, where she was found and arrested 11 days later.
Some supporters of the Baugh family said they were relieved to see Henderson plead guilty after years of lies and denials. But Brandon’s parents, grandmother and sister said they had been surprised and disappointed to learn she would not face a jury once more.
“I have no doubts that your plea today is not an act of contrition but another act of selfishness in order to gain your freedom,” Brandon’s father, Eryn Baugh, told Henderson on the witness stand on the day she took her plea.
A corrections officer escorting an inmate to his cell was beaten to death Wednesday at a far northeast Texas prison, Department of Criminal Justice officials said.
The officer was escorting the inmate from a dayroom at the Telford Unit when he was attacked with an object, prison agency spokesman Jason Clark said. Officials did not immediately identify the weapon.
“It’s still under investigation,” Clark said.
The officer, Timothy Davison, 47, was taken to a hospital in Texarkana, about 20 miles east of the prison, where he died, Clark said. Davison, who lived near the prison, had been with the agency since December.
“Our hearts are deeply saddened by this tragic loss of life,” Brad Livingston, executive director of the prison system, said. “This dedicated correctional officer came to work each day determined to make Texas a safe place to live.”
The inmate involved was identified as Billy Joel Tracy, 37.
Prison records show he has at least seven convictions dating back to 1995 and is serving a life sentence for robbery and aggravated assault from Rockwall County, a suburban county east of Dallas. He has other convictions from Tarrant and Potter counties, including possession of a deadly weapon while in prison. At least three convictions are for assaults on corrections officers.
“We will see that the offender who is responsible for this murder will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Oliver Bell, chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, said.
Clark said the Telford Unit was properly staffed and had not been the scene of recent serious security problems.
“Of course, any time there’s a serious incident like this, there will be a review,” he said. “That’s standard procedure.”
Investigators from the agency’s Office of Inspector General were at the prison and “processing the crime scene,” Clark said.
It’s the first slaying of a Texas corrections officer since 2007, when 59-year-old Susan Canfield suffered fatal head injuries during the chaos and gunfire as two inmates broke away from a work detail outside a Huntsville-area prison. Both inmates were recaptured. One of them convicted of her death has since been executed.
The Telford Unit in Bowie County can hold nearly 2,900 inmates.
New studies show that trauma biologically alters the brains of young boys in ways that affect their adult behavior.
Juan Ramirez grew up in poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, in a neighborhood infested with drug-and gang-related violence. By the age of 10 he’d started smoking marijuana and using inhalants. Within a couple of years he’d moved on to cocaine. By his middle teens he was drinking alcohol and smoking weed daily. A game he and his friends used to play in the Valley, called WAWA, involved spraying paint into a bag, sealing the lip around their mouths, and inhaling the fumes to get high.
Ramirez is the middle of five children and, according to court documents, his mother and father were alcoholics who disciplined their kids by whipping them with belts, clothes hangers, shoes—even tree branches. The severity of those beatings depended on the parents’ moods. Consequently, Ramirez spent most of his time playing outside in the street.
Inevitably, perhaps, he dropped out of school, became a drug addict and spent time in Texas Youth Commission facilities for juvenile offenders. But it was a single incident in 2003 that sealed his fate. One night in early January, 11 masked men burst into a small house in Hidalgo County to steal marijuana. By the time they left, six members of a rival drug gang in the house were dead. Ramirez was just 20 years old and the youngest of those the police said were responsible. Although he wasn’t identified as the gunman, under Texas’ law of parties, prosecutors successfully sought the death penalty.
For the uninitiated, the law of parties holds that if a person “solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense,” then he or she is criminally responsible for the conduct of the other person. Of course the law can be applied inconsistently—and it often is.
This is Ramirez’s 11th year on death row, housed at the notorious Polunsky Unit in the rural East Texas town of Livingston. And his is one of numerous stories of childhood abuse and violence that condemned inmates have told the Observer as part of an informal yet wide-ranging survey of the men waiting for Texas to exercise the most brutal manifestation of its power.
Last year, I sent a questionnaire to each of the 292 inmates on Texas’ death row. It was designed to elicit information often missed in narratives about the death penalty: the effect that solitary confinement has on them; whether they had found religion in prison; and what sort of childhoods they had. I wanted to see if any patterns emerged.
Forty-one inmates responded. Ramirez was among 22 inmates (54 percent) who reported having violent or abusive childhoods. An additional nine inmates (22 percent) described their childhoods as “hard,” or said they had some sort of dominant negative issue—whether it was growing up in poverty and/or in a crime-filled neighborhood or that they endured the potentially debilitating experience of having a parent walk out on them. This is the final story in a series based on information obtained from those responses. Three others, which explore what books the inmates read, the effects of solitary confinement, and how religion factors into their lives, ran previously on the Observer website.
This is not an attempt to retry those cases or to mitigate the harm these men caused. But too often, defense attorneys lack the resources to launch in-depth investigations into the backgrounds of those facing capital convictions. And to quote the Death Penalty Information Center, “Almost all defendants in capital cases cannot afford their own attorneys. In many cases, the appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid, or lacking the trial experience required for death penalty cases.” The center cites a Dallas Morning News examination of 461 capital cases that found nearly one in four inmates was represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed attorneys who had been disciplined for professional misconduct. Additionally, an investigation by the Texas Defender Service found death row inmates “faced a one-in-three chance of being executed without having the case properly investigated by a competent attorney.”
It’s also important to acknowledge that the stories of inmates’ childhoods that have emerged from the Observer’s survey are told in the inmates’ own words. When possible, they have been corroborated with court documents or contextualized by news reports.
The responses in our correspondence offer new evidence that supports findings from studies that show a correlation between childhood trauma and the potential for future violent offending. As Texas leads the nation’s death penalty states in executions, the letters also act as important reminders that it’s time we ask what this says about the fractured minds of those we execute and rethink the extent of our moral culpability.
At his trial, prosecutors said Ramirez was a member of a Rio Grande Valley gang known as the Tri-City Bombers. But of the 11 alleged perpetrators of what became known as the Edinburg Massacre, only two received a death sentence. Another, Robert Garza, was executed in 2013 for an unrelated offense. That same year, the alleged ringleader of the gang, Jeffrey Juarez, known as “Dragon,” got 20 years for drug conspiracy and trafficking but escaped prosecution for the killings in Edinburg due to lack of witnesses. Likewise, Reymundo Sauceda, who prosecutors said approved the homicides, had the capital murder indictment against him dismissed. The others in the gang either received prison terms or remain fugitives from the law.
In a letter to the Observer, Ramirez wrote, “I come from the poorest region of the nation, from a poor household. I pretty much had all the strikes against me before I had a choice of my own.”
In their paper “The Cycle of Violence,” published by the American Psychological Association, David Lisak and Sara Beszterczey, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston, looked at the life histories of 43 men on death row. They discovered that all of them reported having been neglected as children, that an astonishing 94 percent had been physically abused, 59 percent sexually abused, and 83 percent had witnessed violence in adolescence.
Another study, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality,” published in 2013 in The (Kaiser) Permanente Journal, surveyed 151 offenders and compared their answers with a “normative sample” of the population. The researchers found that the offender group reported nearly four times as many adverse events in childhood as the control group.
Many, if not most, condemned men were abandoned by their fathers, lived in foster care, or were abused or neglected, according to Mark Cunningham and Mark Vigen, who 13 years ago conducted a critical review of the literature on death row inmates for the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law. This observation, they wrote, is supported by the findings of seven of the clinical studies they looked at. “The presence of pathological family interactions in the histories of capital murderers is consistent with an extensive body of research demonstrating the role of disrupted attachment and disturbed family relationships in the etiology of violence,” they wrote. In the United Kingdom (which doesn’t have the death penalty), Gwyneth Boswell, a professor at the University of East Anglia, has spent 22 years conducting research into why young people become violent, and she has identified that trauma experiences in childhood are key features. Two of her studies suggest a high prevalence of abuse and traumatic loss in young offenders’ lives. In one study, Boswell examined the files of 200 young offenders and discovered 72 percent had experienced some kind of abuse—be it emotional, sexual, ritual, or a combination. And 57 percent had experienced the death or loss of contact of a parent. The total number of young offenders who had experienced abuse and/or loss was 91 percent. “Unresolved trauma,” Boswell wrote, “is likely to manifest itself in some way at a later date. Many children become depressed, disturbed, violent or all three, girls tending to internalize and boys to externalize their responses.”
Reading through the stories contained in the questionnaires that the inmates returned, you are confronted with a litany of childhood horror. There’s Eugene Broxton, sent to an orphanage before being cared for by an older sister whose partner then beat him. Broxton was sentenced to death in 1992 after breaking into a hotel room, tying up, robbing and shooting a couple that was staying there. The woman died; her husband survived. In response to Broxton’s defense counsel’s argument in mitigation concerning his home life, the state said, “his sister, his half-sister, his half-brother got the same kind of discipline. And they didn’t turn out to be mass murderers.” Willie Trottie—who was executed in September—wrote that he had an abusive and violent mother who beat him and his siblings with extension cords until they bled. “I was abandoned at a hotel in Houston, placed in foster homes, was beaten there, and I ran away from all of them only to be returned to [the homes] to be abused again,” he wrote. “I was about seven or eight years old.”
Trottie was convicted of the 1993 shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend, Barbara Canada, and her brother Titus. Prosecutors said he had threatened to kill Barbara if she didn’t come back to him. Trottie admitted shooting the pair but said it was in self-defense after Titus Canada shot him first. (Trottie was arrested after driving himself to the hospital with gunshot wounds.)
In an appeal to the Supreme Court, Trottie’s lawyers argued that attorneys representing him at his original trial failed to produce sufficient testimony about Trottie’s abusive childhood. Maurie Levin, an attorney with vast experience defending capital cases, and who represented Trottie in his litigation concerning the lethal injection protocol, told me that all of her clients survived miserable childhoods rampant with sexual, physical and emotional abuse. “They were impoverished, often entirely outside the social safety net. … How much does it affect later behavior? Every current study says it does—developmentally, neurologically, you name it—and our clients’ stories bear that out.”
Jeff Wood, who was convicted under the law of parties for being an accomplice to the murder of a convenience store clerk in Kerrville in the mid-1990s, wrote that his father used to hit him with a razor strap so badly that Child Protective Services was called. During the punishment phase of his trial, Wood instructed his attorneys not to call any witnesses, and so evidence of his abusive childhood was never presented.
Clinton Young, who faces execution for his part in a double murder in the course of a carjacking, wrote that he grew up with an abusive father and an emotionally abusive stepfather. “My dad beat me with a 2×4 and [kicked me with] steel toe-capped boots. My step dad focused on making sure I feared him and that I knew my real father didn’t care about me—and that I wouldn’t amount to, in his words, ‘a hill of rabbit shit in life.’”
Aníbal Canales strangled his cellmate in 1997 and was sentenced to death three years later. “I think it would take way too much paper to try and talk about my childhood,” he wrote in response to the Observer’s questionnaire. “I grew up in a house that was both violent and abusive. My father was a deeply violent man [who] abused me and my family regularly. My mother was an alcoholic and abusive also. I lived in a jungle, and I learned to hide myself in the foliage that was my life—and hide deep. It wasn’t until late in life that I was able to talk about that part of my life.”
In his findings at Canales’ Fifth Circuit appeal, the judge conceded that “by [his] trial counsel’s own admission [he] did not hire a mitigation specialist, interview family members or others who knew him growing up, or ‘collect any records or any historical data on his life.’” During Canales’ sentencing, the only mitigation presented by his attorney was that he was “a gifted artist” and “a peacemaker in prison.”
The 5th Circuit added that if Canales’ trial attorneys had conducted a mitigation investigation, “they would have discovered an extensive history of physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Canales’s mother was an alcoholic who neglected her children, and his father was violent, angry, and irrational. After Canales’s parents separated, his mother married a man who was physically abusive, beating Canales with a belt and fist and forcing him to strip naked prior to these beatings. Canales’s step-father sexually abused his sister, and Canales attempted, in vain, to protect her. The family lived in poor housing, infested with flea[s] and lice and located in ‘gang central.’ Canales’s grandparents were also physically and verbally abusive. Eventually, Canales’s mother left him with his father. The beatings then resumed, and Canales’s father would beat him ‘until his father got tired.’ This led Canales to abuse drugs and alcohol, ‘hook up with the wrong people,’ and begin committing crimes. He lived in half-way houses for part of his teenage years. Canales’s sister stated that the death of Canales’s mother affected Canales severely and that he ‘went off the deep end’ after she passed away.”
Thomas Whitaker wrote that his childhood was emotionally derelict, with no friends or peers and no connection to his family. In December 2003, a couple of weeks before Christmas, Whitaker and his family returned to their Houston home after dinner. Inside the house, a masked gunman shot and killed Whitaker’s brother, Kevin, and his mother, Tricia, before wounding his father, Kent, and Whitaker himself. Although it looked like a robbery, police eventually arrested Whitaker. He later confessed to hiring the gunman to kill his family because of what prosecutors termed an “irrational hate.”
And there’s Jedidiah Murphy, whose parents abandoned him at 5, forcing him to live out his childhood in a series of foster homes. “I could not tell you all of it were you to have all day,” he wrote. “It was violent and it did not help me in life at all. I don’t blame all my life’s ills on my childhood but I never had a shot with the way that I grew up. I learned the wrong way right off the bat, and hell it took forever to see what I was doing was wrong. By that time I was lost to alcoholism like my father and his father and so on.”
As if an abusive childhood weren’t bad enough, Hector Medina, another death row inmate who responded to the questionnaire, spent his in a country torn apart by a bitter civil war.